In previous posts, I’ve discussed Sojourn Music’s new album, Over the Grave: the hymns of Isaac Watts, volume 1. This final post is a brief discussion on which songs would work best in a congregational singing situation.
Before we look at a few songs from Over the Grave, however, let me make a few comments on finding songs that “work” for a congregation. I’ll admit that part of the process is subjective, but there are some criteria that I look for. I’ll only include criteria here that relate to what makes a good congregational song, not a good song in general. (For example, if the lyrics are poorly written, there’s no need to even consider a song for congregational singing.) In no particular order, they include:
- Vocal Range:
- This doesn’t mean appropriateness of the key. If it did, 99% of Chris Tomlin’s songs would be disqualified. It means, “Can I fit this song into a key where the vocal range is at most an octave and a fourth?” An octave and a major second is even better.
- Rhythmic Simplicity/Complexity:
- This is probably the most subjective of a list of subjective criteria. To put it simply, “Can this song be sung well by folks who have only heard it a few times and do not own a recording? Will they know when the words fall?” If the answer is no, we should reject the song.
- Melodic Interest:
- Simply, is the melody memorable and singable? Are there any weird leaps?
On this album, I would recommend (and plan on using) three tunes for congregational singing:
- Only Your Blood
- May Your Power Rest on Me
All three of these songs are very well written both musically and lyrically and meet the criteria that I listed above.
Why not some of the others? As I said, it’s a subjective call. (And for me to want to use 3 songs from a single CD is a large number to begin with.) “Warrior”, for all of its creativity, would not transfer well to a congregation of all ages (think of Aunt Noreen trying to get out all of the words on the verses at the right time). “Living Faith” has a range of an octave and a sixth; one of the reasons that it works well as a song is because of the soaring chorus – but this is precisely the area that would be trouble for anyone in our congregations who isn’t a soprano or tenor. The other songs that I haven’t mentioned just didn’t work as well for congregational singing for me as well as the three noted above.
I’m sure that Sojourn Church uses most, if not all, of these songs in their worship services. Good for them. Indigenous music is a lost art in the church. However, the songs have come directly out of their congregation. They are reflective of that church in a way that they’re not reflective of mine. Sure, I could expect folks from my church to buy the CD if they really want to know the songs we’re singing. But I’m of the opinion that if someone needs to own a CD or listen to Christian radio to really learn a song for corporate worship, the song is too difficult.
My one disappointment with this album was that there were relatively few songs that I felt would work well with a congregation. This surprised me. Of course, not all songs on hymn albums are meant to be sung corporately (there are many songs on the Indelible Grace CDs, for instance, that are not congregational and some on my own CD won’t work for congregations), but I expected that at least half of the album would be adaptable for corporate singing. However, I’m reading my own expectations into a review of someone else’s art and that’s not entirely fair. Just because I would have liked them to have a more corporate focus doesn’t make their work poor because it has a different focus.
To sum up all four parts of a lengthy review, I love Over the Grave. I hope that more churches and musicians will take on projects like this one. Buy it. Listen to it. Use these songs. Support these musicians.